Rail Tank Car Safety Improvements, Up Close and Personal

By Christopher A. Hart

Chairman Christopher Hart touring the Greenbrier rail tank car facility at the Hockley & Greens Port facilityThe North American energy boom has resulted in placing rail tank cars into service as ad-hoc pipelines; it’s the ad-hoc part that is troubling. Several recent high-profile derailments and hazmat releases have resulted in pressure to make transportation of flammable liquids by rail tank cars safer.

In January, the NTSB placed Improve Rail Tank Car Safety on our Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements. We recently issued four urgent recommendations calling for an aggressive schedule of replacing or retrofitting the current rail car fleet with better thermal protection against heat from fires and installing appropriately sized  pressure relief devices. And earlier this week, I testified before Congress on the issue of rail safety, including rail tank car safety.

Today, a team of NTSB investigators and I visited The Greenbrier Companies, where they manufacture, repair, and refurbish rail tank cars. They gave us a first-hand look at the intricacies of making and servicing rail tank cars at the Hockley & Greens Port facility.

What I learned today only underscored my confidence that the necessary retrofits can be completed in much less than the ten years that has been proposed by some in the industry. We saw how the existing tank car fleet can be retrofitted with puncture resistance and thermal protection systems, and valve protection to significantly reduce the possibility of releases in accidents of highly flammable materials such as crude oil and ethanol. We also saw significantly improved tank cars that exceed current federal and industry standards for puncture resistance and thermal protection. Retrofitting the fleet can be done in less than a decade.

We know that preventing tragedies will require a systems approach that keeps trains from derailing, especially in sensitive areas, preserves tank car integrity if a derailment occurs, and prepares our emergency responders for such events.

Our visit has given us deeper insight about how the industry is preparing to meet the crashworthiness challenge. What I learned today gave me a better understanding of how this work can be done safely and quickly.

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